Food Education #TruePrue

Food Education

Lead Association for Catering in Education Conference

Birmingham, 11 July, 2019

 I don’t know what’s the matter with government:  To me it’s perfectly obvious that we only have one opportunity to improve the nation’s health and get us to embrace sustainability — and that’s while the next generation is corralled at school. If we want to teach children to eat healthily and sustainably has to happen at school.  

Of course this will take capital investment, money for training and at least a decent subsidy for free school meals, if not free meals for all.

But it would be so worth it!

Just think: If we took food education really seriously, taught children to eat as well as to cook, taught them to grow vegetables, taught them to understand food politics, nutrition, sustainability etc, what difference would it make? Well, I believe it would do a pile of good right across the board.

 In would make a difference for schools: children love cooking, gardening and eating. It’s a great way to get them to love school

It would also make a difference to the economy: because keen young people interested in food would join the workforce. Many would start their own food businesses, and become employers and tax payers. If they had imbibed the sustainability message at school, they’d carry that ethos into their future employment and behave responsibly in their own lives.

 It would make a difference to the NHS: Because the unsupportable costs of obesity, diabetes, amputations (did you know that amputations are the fastest growing surgical procedure in this country) which are all food-related problems) would plummet.

Taking food seriously would also be good for the peopleThere is no doubt that happiness improves with health. That’s what we mean by well-being: a combination of physical health and happiness.


Of course we know that a healthy diet can do wonders for the body. What is less well known is that eating well affects the brain just as much as the body. Which is obvious really. The brain is part of the body. Why would we think a junk diet would have no effect on the brain? 

Prof John Stein of Oxford Uni emailed me the following summary of results from the Institute of Brain and Behaviour’s scientific studies:

“In our Aylesbury Young Offenders’ study, raising nutrient levels tripled the rate of progress in disadvantaged readers, improved sociability by 27%, and reduced violent behaviour by 37%.  Improved diet also reduced self-harm in young people.

In the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents & Children the more fish and vegetables the mothers and their children consumed throughout pregnancy and childhood, the higher was the child’s IQ aged 8. 


So I think we can all agree that a nation that knows how to eat and enjoys healthy food would be a good idea.


But how to get to it?

The sad fact is that governments tinker with food education, depending on who the Secretary of State is and what the headlines in the Daily Mail are. But no one has the guts to really grasp the nettle and do something radical. A lot of very good work goes on in schools, led by caterers, or chefs, or sustainability charities, occasionally by teachers and wonderfully, but rarely, by local authorities or school governors.  But in the majority of schools, food is just not a priority.


Let me quickly rehearse the problems:

 Firstly, parents often feed their children poor quality food and set an example of waste and careless disregard for the planet.  If you can’t cook and cannot afford to pick up expensive ready meals, you resort to what the children like. You are not going to risk your money on cooking something which you may fail at, and which you believe the children won’t like anyway. It would be money in the bin.


And if you have little idea of the risks to the planet of the over-use of chemicals and plastics, if there is no culture in your family of recycling or making do, if you yourself have been brought up in a throw-way society, have never been taught to sew on a button, why would you think it wrong to chuck your grubby trainers rather than give them a scrub? Or to buy water in plastic bottles rather than refilling a bottle from a tap?


The next problem is that children buy junk on the way to school or at lunchtime. Of course they do. They are hungry, and their friends are doing it.  I’ve seen chippies surrounding a school at lunch time offering all the chips you can eat for a £1. It’s the best sales of the day for the chippy, and children love chips. Parents may be aware that chips are not a good diet, but school lunches, or making a lunch box, can cost three times as much as a bag of chips. And if you have several children, it’s easy to concentrate on the money you are saving rather than the risk to their health. 


The next problem, which you know too well, is that caterers struggle to break even with low subsidies and rising prices: You are asked to feed children healthy sustainable food, but it’s a battle to get the kids to eat anything other than pizza. And fresh, local, sustainable food can be expensive. And budget cuts generally fall first on the catering department.


And then few schools make food and sustainabilty a real priority. Training staff costs money and it’s not just the cooks who need training. If a food revolution is to take place the whole school has to do its part, so mid-day supervisors, academic teachers, caterers, parents, all need to be brought on side.


It is currently the law that all children in state schools must be taught to cook until the age of 14, but 40% of schools don’t do it. Some schools are unaware that it is a statutory requirement. And anyway, no one checks whether they are doing it or not. There are no sanctions for not obeying the law. Even in schools where they do teach cooking, there is unlikely to be any link to what is served in the dining room.


Whether a school carries through a sustainability policy is up to the school, and many heads just don’t regard it as a priority. I think this is beginning to change, with children themselves beginning to demand more action from their elders. Some schools, I know, are leading the way, usually with help from a charity or consultant in how to get started. I’ve seen schools who have dramatically reduced their food waste by weighing it every day, and then figuring how to get it down: usually by simplifying the menu, by improving the quality so more gets eaten, by eliminating single use plastics, by buying loose veg locally.


Another problem, as I see it, is that in many schools caterers are not considered part of the school team. They often enter and leave by the back door, are poorly paid and are not invited to staff meetings or consulted in any way.  


And finally, manufacturers are great at selling junk to children. That’s their job. You can’t blame them. But we do need to circumvent their evil ways!


I don’t need to rehearse the history of school food because you guys know it better than me. The whole business of Jamie’s’ school dinners and the turkey twizzler uproar must have been horrible for you, being blamed for the dire situation in some canteens, and the appalling condition of some kitchens and dining rooms. It must have been really painful.


But it did lead to some necessary changes like setting up of the Schools Food Trust which, as you know, I then chaired. I still think that was the most important job I’ve ever had. And we did get some necessary changes: like mandatory nutritional standards; banning the sale of sugary drinks, sweets, biscuits, cakes etc from food counters or vending machines.


But in spite of all that good work it was, and is, not nearly enough. I am sure you will agree with me that some schools don’t have good enough cooks and some schools still serve junk. As you know, academies don’t have to follow the rules. Many do anyway, but I remember a facilities manager for a bunch of academies openly boasting of the money he made selling chips, which they spent on sports equipment.


But the biggest problem, I think, is the fathomless pockets of the food manufacturers bent on selling sugar, fat, and salt to children. Those pockets are so deep that one single product, let’s say Kit Kat or Haribos, probably has more promotion budget for a month than the whole School Food Trust had for a year. The government thought, and I believe still thinks, the answer is to bring the manufacturers into the fold, talk to them, have them on committees deciding on policy. In my book that’s mad. It’s giving the fox the key to the henhouse.


In my School Food Trust years, I learned a few home truths. Firstly, that nothing, but nothing, happens in a school if the Head is not on side. You can have the keenest, most able food teacher in the world, or the most talented energetic and imaginative caterer but if the Head doesn’t believe food matters, doesn’t know that a lack of fish oils affects intelligence, doesn’t think too much sugar can cause hyper-activity, is not persuaded that a healthily-fed child will be happier and perform better, then he or she will not give food studies any curriculum time, will not spend money on the dingy dining room, will not keep the cooks up to date with

training, will not regard the catering staff as part of the school team. In my book, this is a criminal neglect of duty.


It’s no good arguing that the well-being of a child is not the business of the educator. Every school boasts a mission to succour and develop the whole child and turn out good citizens, equipped to play their part in a civilized society. Neglecting that child’s body and brain and indeed his or her attitude and behaviour, is not fulfilling that mission.


I also learned not to entirely trust parents. However much you tell them that a “treat” should not be an everyday affair, and however well-educated and alive to the importance of a healthy diet they are, they can’t resist putting a finger of fudge or a packet of crisps into that lunch box.


Of course they can’t. First of all the child nags the hell of them. And then they want their little darling to open the box and think, Ah, Mummy, she loves me, as they wolf down the Smarties. Have you ever packed a picnic without a treat in the box? Of course not. But a once a year picnic is not the same as an everyday lunchbox.


And then, I’m afraid I learned that we should forget about parents. Yes, they are important, but it’s mostly too late.

Sometimes two, even three, generations have grown up knowing nothing about where their food comes from, how to cook it, or at what cost to the planet or suffering to animals it has been produced.


Parents are set in their ways, and, understandably, they believe what they do is right. And anyway, they are doing their best.  I never met a Mum who thought she was bringing her children up badly.


If you do invite parents into a school to learn about nutrition or to cook, the only ones who come are the keen cooks. Of the rest, some didn’t like school when they were there and the rest are nervous of being shown up.


The only success we ever had was when we told after-school club children to bring an adult in to help them. The parents came to wash up for their children and got drawn in by accident.


To be brutal, parents are too hard to reach and too expensive to teach. Better to spend the money directly on the children.


I think the best hope of educating the parents is to start with the children. I once ran a charity, Focus on Food, which

toured round schools with teaching buses, giving cooking classes to primary school children and their teachers. We’d park in Waitrose carparks and, when parents came to collect their offspring after a lesson, the children would drag them into the supermarket to buy the ingredients for the dishes they’d just cooked and eaten. They wanted to do again, at home.


So, overall, the current the picture is not that rosy. Of course, some great initiatives, great collaborations of caterers and schools arehappening. But many, many children still spend their lunch break queuing for indifferent food to be eaten in dreary dining rooms or at their desks. And children are still getting fatter and more unfit with every passing year, and the world is getting more polluted.


So what’s to be done?


I truly believe we could fix the obesity problem in a single generation. We have all the information, knowledge and ability to do it. Among the many charities, food teachers, caterers and schools, we have a wealth of experience of what works. I bet if I picked any five of you and asked you to work out how best to get children to love good food, and to willingly, voluntarily, eat a healthy diet, you would design a system in an hour that would work. Making the school sustainable might take a little longer.


To me, the solution to obesity is staring us in the face. It is the most obvious thing in the world.  But we need a government with the political gumption to get a grip.  


OK, so how do we get there? Well, here is my personal blue-print.


As children only eat about 30% of the day’s food in school, we need to make it really matter.


First of all, I would make lunchtime a lesson.Part of the school curriculum, with the school charged with responsibility for teaching children to eat, ie, they need to be persuaded to like good food and to enjoy a healthy diet.


Next, I would ban lunchboxes. This would have an immediate effect on the finances of the catering department, allowing the cooks to do a better job. And crucially, it would solve the problem of unhealthy lunches at a stroke.


Allied to this, I wouldban the bringing of any food at allinto school. This would mean children would have some appetite, might even be pleasantly hungry, by lunchtime, and more likely to try what was on offer.


Lunch would be free. Since, under my regime, lunch is a lesson, albeit a relaxed and un-stressful one, the costs should be borne by the state. Finland does this, with an average of 8% of a school’s costs going on lunch and food education.


Everyone, staff and pupils, would sit down together to lunch.


Large schools would need to stagger the timetable, but this would mean that pupils were not wasting their lunchtime queuing, but they could enjoy half an hour of relaxed R and R.


Phones would be banned, and students taught grown-up behaviour (I hesitate to say ‘table manners’ but that’s what I mean. Knowing how to behave in a restaurant or in company gives children a lot of confidence.)


School dining rooms would be upgraded to be pleasant places to be, where students could relax and chat to their friends.


Kitchens would be modernisedto accommodate cooking from scratch. The main equipment would be tilting kettles and combi-ovens. The ovens would take 20- portion gastronorm trays so that batch cooking from fresh would be possible. As you know a combi-oven can, if the staff are properly trained to program it, shallow fry, bake, roast and steam.


The tilting kettles would cook stews, soups, mash, rice, stir-fries and etc. There would be no hob cooking at all, so no staff standing stirring for hours. The giant kettles would do that. Machines would spin the salad, chop the veg, liquidise the soup, make the pastry, and of course, wash up. A proper modern, commercial kitchen geared to healthy cooking.


This would mean a 50% reduction in staff. The school I saw in Finland fed 1000 children between the ages of 7 and 17 with four full time catering staff and one half-timer. At that time schools feeding 1000 students in England employed between 9 – 14 people.  


This saving in staff costs would pay for the upgrading of the kitchens. The Finns reckoned it took about three to four years for the investment in the kitchens to be paid for out of wage savings.


Of course I am talking about 10 years ago, so I may be wildly out of date. But with the chronic difficulty of finding good cooks to work in schools, this seems a sensible route to take.


Except for special diets, everyone would have the same lunch. No choice.The problem with choice is that children are innately conservative and if they like pizza they will have

it every day of the year. My menu would change every day

so children would get to eat a variety of foods. Frankly, a salad bar in the corner, mostly ignored by the students, does not count as a ‘healthy choice’ in my book.  It’s only healthy if it gets eaten.


If everyone eats the same lunch, catering is easier, serving is quicker, and there is less waste and therefore less food cost.


Children would serve themselves so they would not end up with more food than they can eat. This aspect of the Finnish system surprised me. I imagined it would create a lot of mess. But no, children were taught to be careful and to take only what they could eat – they were welcome to come back for more.


Next, I’d have children spending a week (say in Year 9) working in the kitchen. This would give them an enjoyable learning experience and some responsibility. It also means, as they see that the food is cooked from fresh and in batches so it arrives looking appetising on the counter, they become champions and ambassadors for school dinners. I would have them also lay up in the morning and clear up after lunch.


Children would be taught about all aspects of food. Growing, cooking, sustainability, food politics, food history, nutrition, other countries cuisines.  If children are to eat well, they must first be interested in food and want to eat healthily. And learning about food is very enjoyable.


I am sure there are some of you shaking your heads and saying it can’t be done, but it can be and it is. What I have described is exactly the regime I saw ten years ago in Finland which has had free school meals for all schoolchildren since 1947. The government believes that learning to eat healthily is as important as learning to add up or to write. And, as with maths and languages, there is no choice.    


The week I visited was Italian week in the school, They learnt about Italy in History, Art, Geography, and the menu was:

Monday:  Big bowl of Minestrone

Tuesday: Osso Bucco with potato

Wednesday: Pizza Margherita

Thursday: Pasta with Aubergine and red pepper 

Friday: Fish Risotto with peas

Every day there was bread and salad available, with plain yogurt and fruit to follow.

You will notice that three out of five of the main courses were vegetarian and nothing was deep fried.

Everyone ate everything.


Impressed by the schools I visited, but sceptical about the lasting effects of this compulsory regime, I visited one of the enormous colleges, to which students go at 17. There they had an all-day cafeteria with a huge amount of choice, including, round the edges of the room, stalls selling cupcakes, burgers, ice cream, snacks etc. But almost all the young people were crowded round the counters in the middle, which offered the sort of food they’d learnt to like at school: Meatballs and rice, salads, vegetarian dishes, etc. You don’t UNLIKE good food once you’ve got a taste for it.

I came back from Finland, all fired up. Sadly, we only managed to persuade a few schools to go the whole hog.

 One I visited was an all-boys ex-failing secondary in a very rough area with a Head who realized that if the whole school had school dinners, the catering operation could break even.

 O crikey I thought, teenage boys, the worst cohort to try this experiment on. But they did it, and by the time I visited, at the end of the first term, no one, not the boys, the staff or the caterers wanted to go back to the old pushing and shoving, queueing, multi-choice, poor food, days of yore.


Parents loved it because they were no longer pestered by their children about the contents of their lunch boxes.  And they were astonished and delighted at how quickly the boys had grown used to good food.


Another secondary, in Hackney (then one of the poorest boroughs in Europe), with 60% free school meals and half the parents, single mothers, managed it brilliantly. The day I visited, the meal was fresh baked fish with a spicy topping, cous cous with veg and sultanas in it, steamed peas and broccoli, followed by plain yogurt and fruit salad. 


The day I visited this school, I had a news TV team following me and the next day I was on Andrew Neil’s lunchtime political news programme. They showed a clip of the children eating lunch, the teachers saying it was worth sitting with them because they got a free lunch and it was good, the caterer talking about the reduction in waste, etc. 


Then Andrew Neil turned to me and pulled out a fizzy drink, a burger and a chocolate bar from under his desk and said, “This is my lunch, are you going to tell me I can’t eat it?” So I said,


“No, you poison yourself if you want to, that’s fine. Go ahead. I’m here to worry about schoolchildren.”


He then turned to his other guest, Ed Balls, who was then in the Treasury, and asked him what he thought.  Balls said, “I think it’s nonsense. My daughter would never eat that stuff.”


I was livid. He, a government minister, was rubbishing government policy on healthy eating to curry favour with the Hands Off Our Chips brigade.  I knew he was married to the then Sports Minister Yvette Cooper and I said, “How come your daughter, with two privileged Ministers of State for parents, can’t be got to eat properly when 98% of those kids in impoverished Hackney can?”


I thought no more of it, but a week later Ed Balls was Secretary of State for Education and my boss.  I was summoned to the presence and as I went up in the lift with Judy Hargadon, my CEO, we agreed we’d not mention the TV confrontation and just hope he wouldn’t either. As we walked into the room, Ed stood up, “Now don’t you start!” he said. “I got a bollocking from my wife that night when I got home, and then another bollocking from the Prime Minister the next morning. So OK, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”


It’s true some good things are happening in spite of a lack of government help. It would be wonderful if you members of LACA could persuade ALL schools to join The Soil Association’s Food for Life award scheme. It really does encourage schools to take food seriously, helping them be more sustainable.  A school might get a bronze if its cookery teaching or school dinners are good. Then it might get a silver because it has added a veg garden tended by the students, and the kitchen buys locally. And then it could bag a Gold if the children were taught about nutrition in science, and the school pursued a sustainability policy about waste, plastics and food miles, and treated its catering staff as valued members of the school team.


Then there is Chefs in Schools, a new charity, working mostly in primary schools, which I think is imaginative and inspiring. They recruit cooks, many young ones from the hotel and restaurant trade who can’t stand the long hours, train them in healthy eating and also train them to teach the children to cook and to grow vegetables. The chefs sit with the children at meals, discuss food and encourage them to give veg a go. They are a major and important part of school life. I had lunch in a primary where everyone, including all the staff, sat down to sharing platters of broccoli salad, beans, pine nuts, tomatoes, hard boiled eggs, smoked ham, cheese, hummus and homemade flatbreads.


Chefs in Schools was started by Henry Dimbleby who is to spend the next year on a National Food Strategy, commissioned by Michael Gove, which will look at health and sustainability.  It is hugely important that he gives school food (and food education generally) a prominent part in the strategy. It would be crazy, wouldn’t it, to produce a National Food Strategy without including teaching children to eat well as a central plank?


And who better to advise on, and ultimately help implement that plank than school caterers.


I would really urge LACA to give Henry all the help you can.  He will have a difficult row to hoe with the big agri-businesses, the Monsantos of this world, the sugar lobby and the junk food manufacturers all doing their best to derail any suggestions that might limit their earning power.


My generation has not served the planet well. If we want the next generation to do better, we could start by feeding them healthy, ethically-sourced and sustainable food, and teaching them to love it.  And the way to do that (and to summarise what it has taken me half an hour to say) is to ensure that:

 All schoolchildren learn about food and are taught to cook, everyone has a healthy lunch, sitting down, no choice.  And the government pays for it. Wouldn’t that be great?


On a lighter note, and just to leave you with a smile, when I was having lunch at that Primary with Chefs in Schools, a little girl came round and gave everyone, including me, a sticker for eating up all our veg. A little later a boy came round with more stickers and didn’t give me one.  Why not? I asked? ‘Because you put your elbows on the table’ he said, very disapproving.   


Thank you very much.